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  • Debra Palmen

Jerusalem's Highlights & Secret Nooks

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

You know for the purpose of these Newsletters we’re still in the Middle East. But in real life we’re back in Australia and we have news. Good news.

Firstly, I’ve just negotiated to take on a pop-up shop, which will start on 13 November. It’s in a great location – in fact it’s the same spot that we took earlier this year and that went really well, so fingers crossed for this time. But more on that as the time approaches.

Secondly, Collectorama, the biggest antiques fair in Queensland, is being held on Saturday, 4 November. It’s the last big fair for the year, and we’ll have lots of nice things for you to peruse, including some of the copper we brought back in our luggage (we’ve already sold lots of that, but there are still some top notch pieces), and some really lovely French enamel kitchen utensils that I’ve only just finished tagging.

Meanwhile, let’s get back to our alternate reality.

Picture me writing this to you from a secret nook on the rooftops of Old Jerusalem. It takes a little hunting to find the steps to the rooftops because they’re tucked away at the end of a nondescript laneway. Once there, a long trail leads you across the city, from roof to roof, past church domes, garden terraces and clunky old water heaters, with the occasional skylight allowing you to peak down to see the souks from on high. Crossing the rooftops is a shortcut used by locals to avoid the crowded souks, but it’s not well known to tourists so it’s a quiet haven. In your mind’s eye, I’ve emerged into a hot, white light, in stark contrast to the shaded souks below.

Once there I’m immediately greeted by yet another chirpy, friendly kitten who winds around my legs and then scampers to accompany me as I stroll along, her little tail sticking straight up like a meercat’s. We frequently stop so I can pick her up for a cuddle, which we both enjoy immensely. These rooftops are not as attractive as those around the old bazaar at Istanbul – they won’t be filming James Bond chase scenes on the Jerusalem rooftops any time soon - but they still offer a good view of the Temple Mount and beyond to the Mount of Olives.

The Mount of Olives is where it’s believed Jesus ascended to Heaven and will return for his Second Coming. It’s now home to an enormous, completely packed graveyard and not many olive trees. The entire hill is white limestone, so it’s a hot, dusty site that dazzles your eyes in the sunlight. Graves in this cemetery are hugely desirable because you get to be the first to greet Christ when he gets back. They cost $US250,000 each. And there’s a wait list for them.

Don’t ask me how a wait list would work in this situation. Think about it – if you want a retirement home spot, you often have to wait until a current resident dies. So how would a wait list work in a graveyard? You wait for a current resident to rise from the dead?

All I know is that if I’d paid a quarter of a million US dollars so I could be one of the first to greet Jesus Christ when he comes again, I’d dang well expect not to be dug up for some Johnny-come-lately. But not being on this exclusive wait list, I’ll never know how it works.

The plaza in front of the Western Wall has a gentle slope and is accessible to all visitors. This last remnant of King Solomon’s Temple is enormously tall and its pale limestone blocks are enormously large. Every crevice within reach is jammed full of written prayers, left by hopeful pilgrims. Since it came under Jewish control in 1967 the Wall has been segregated, with men and women accessing it on different sides. A good deal of noisy prayer comes from the men’s side – I expect that’s why it’s also known as the Wailing Wall - while the women pray in almost total silence.

The Western Wall is part of the foundations for the Temple Mount, which is much harder to access. This plateau houses the Dome of the Rock, the famous golden-domed shrine that’s important to Muslims because it was where the Prophet Mohammed started his journey to Heaven, and also sacred to Jews because it’s the rock on which Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son. Nearby is the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third most holy site in Islam. Finally, this is where you find the Dome of the Chain, once regarded as the absolute centre of the world. The Dome of the Chain is an exquisite little structure, almost within touching distance of the Dome of the Rock, and it’s smothered in gorgeous tiles.

Getting past the Israeli guards into Temple Mount was a trial. During our visit a very large queue was made to wait for some time past its opening hour, only to then be told we had three minutes to look around when we finally got in (although it was actually more like half an hour). The guards were slow and surly, roughly searching bags and demanding to know everyone’s religion before they were allowed to enter. By order of the Chief Rabbi, all Jews are strictly forbidden to visit the Temple Mount.

I had planned on scooping up a small pebble for a friend, but one of the benefits of an interminable wait to access the site was having the opportunity to read the stern notice boards listing the things you can’t do on Temple Mount: Take a small stone – or even a tiny amount of dirt – and you will be shot, signed Israeli Army said one. Okay, it didn’t exactly say ‘shot’, but it did say that dire retribution would immediately descend upon you. So the point was taken and my friend missed out on her small pebble.

The Dome of the Chain was my favourite part of the Temple Mount complex. It sits in the shadow of the Dome of the Rock, and although it’s a large open-air structure it’s tiny by comparison. The Dome of the Rock is imposing, its glittering Dome seen for miles around, and tens of thousands of blue, white and green tiles provide a riot of colour across its walls. Only Muslims are permitted to enter this mosque.

By contrast, the Dome of the Chain feels more ‘human’ in size and anyone can pause beside its columns or step under the dome to enjoy its cool, hushed beauty. Each of its 18 columns is made from a different type of marble, and on the top of each column is a carved limestone block, each a different design and shape. But the highlight is the tiles, thousands and thousands of gleaming tiles, each one a splendid little work of art.

In addition to being the centre of the world, the Dome of the Chain was a handy spot for the local magistrates. Hanging from the centre of the dome was a long chain, and legend had it that if you held the chain while telling a lie, you would be immediately struck by lightning. Would you be willing to risk it?

Today there’s only a remnant of a chain, high, high up in the dome where there’s no chance of reaching it. So lie all you like and you’ll be immune to heavenly retribution. Or will you?

Far easier to get into and spend time in is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Even if you’re not religious, this is a very moving spot. Crowds weren’t large during our visit, so it was simply a matter of walking straight up to the Stone of Unction, where Christ’s body was washed and anointed after his crucifixion. You can lay your hand on the stone, if you want. Or you can lay your entire body prostrate across it, weeping, if you want. There were plenty of people doing both. I satisfied myself with placing my hands on it, and laying an olive wood rosary and bracelet on it that I had bought for a friend.

Beautiful mosaics are everywhere in the Church, which is a bit Tardis-like because it’s far bigger once you get inside than it seems from outside. You can touch everything, and some of the mosaics were just normal floors that you walk across. Something that would be in a museum or at least cordoned off in Australia is just the floor in this church.

We climbed the steep, narrow stairs to the chapel that houses the Rock of Golgotha, also known as Calvary. This is the rock where Christ was crucified. Most of the Rock is encased under thick glass, and on the wall behind it are large silver-clad icons. Under the altar is a small hole you can just fit your arm into, to place your hand on the Rock. To make my friend extra happy I also placed her olive wood rosary and bracelet on the Rock. Many people choose to approach the altar on their knees for the last few metres, although that’s not compulsory. This chapel is mostly lit by candles, and the ceiling is glorious - entirely covered with tiny gold and indigo blue mosaic tiles depicting various saints, glittering in the candlelight.

There was a long queue to enter Christ’s tomb but behind the tomb, out of sight of the queue, is a tiny alcove you can walk straight into. From this spot, you can place your hand on a tiny sliver of the rock slab where Christ’s head rested after he was entombed. There are also several ‘spy holes’ in the walls of the tomb that allow you to look inside if you stand on your tippy-toes, and we briefly watched an Armenian Orthodox ceremony from this vantage point.

We paused briefly on some pews in front of an altar to Mary Magdalene, only to suddenly find ourselves surrounded by Franciscan friars in their homespun brown cassocks, chanting and singing psalms in Latin, while their accompanying priests swung large gilt-metal censers of incense. Tourists who were drawn by the friars’ lovely voices were shooed away by security guards, so they gathered at the far edge of the chapel to listen. But because we were already there we were allowed to remain in the middle of the action. It was a lovely way to end our visit to the church.

We walked to the other side of the Old City to visit King David’s Citadel. It’s not as much of a trek as it might sound, because the city is compact and it took perhaps 15 minutes. In its day this was also King Herod's stronghold and many scholars believe the Citadel was where Christ was put on trial before his execution. We strolled the high ramparts, which ultimately turned into hiking a good part of the city walls for bloody miles, and we were the only people there. We alone were the defenders of Jerusalem, patrolling the walls, alert for enemies. But the enemies didn’t show up, and the promise of a good dinner accompanied by iced lemon juice with lots and lots of mint lured us back into the souks.

Our next stop was Jordan. We decided to forgo the pleasures of travelling for a few hours by crowded bus to get to the border and found a taxi-driver who, after a little haggling, agreed to take us to the border crossing at Bet She’an. The Allenby Bridge crossing would have been more convenient but the Israeli military can close it at any time, at a moment’s notice, and then there’s no going anywhere. So the safer bet is to make the journey to the northern border crossing, although that didn’t turn out to be as plain sailing as we were anticipating. But more on that, and the stupendous Petra, in the next Newsletter.

Meanwhile, don’t forget that Collectorama is on Saturday 4 November, followed by Peregian Beach market on Sunday 5 November. These double-header weekends of massive unpacking and repacking are a bit of a killer, so a fair bit of snoozing in the shade by the beach will no doubt be happening by early Sunday morning. But would be lovely to see you at either event – just give us a shake if we’ve dozed off.

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